In order to make something from scratch, sometimes you just gotta get your hands dirty. That is one virtue that Melanie Abrantes has never shied away from in her pursuit to run her own handmade business, Melanie Abrantes Designs. In her modest studio in Jack London Square in Oakland, she uses her family heritage and in-depth knowledge of materials to craft home goods that carve their own unique niche in the American handmade market. Melanie’s liberal use of cork in her designs stems from her Portuguese family heritage, along with her passion to shed light on the beauty, versitiliy, and sustainability of using cork in new ways. Her creativity and curiosity means that no two items in her assortment are ever the same and each of her designs is on a constantly-evolving trajectory. Melanie is a true do-it-yourself entrepeneur when it comes to running her business (she has even published her own book!), is not afraid to point out that it is not always sunshine and roses, but admits that it’s the most rewarding thing she’s ever done. Hear more from Melanie below on what being a maker is really like and what inspires her to keep creating every day.
Photography by Melissa de Mata.
Please tell us a little about yourself and your work.
My name is Melanie. I am the designer and maker of Melanie Abrantes Designs. I am a Bay Area-based producer of handcrafted, heirloom objects. I believe that in order to create something beautiful, you have to get your hands dirty. Working with a variety of unique materials, I strive to create products of the highest quality that are equally beautiful and functional. I am also the author of the book, Carve: A Simple Guide to Whittling, which is a DIY book that shows beginners how to make simple objects out of wood. I also teach spoon carving classes in my studio in Oakland.
How did you get into this business and what inspired you to dedicate yourself to handmade objects?
I founded my company in 2013 when I realized there was a growing American market for handmade goods. I started working at a local wood shop to make small gifts for friends and family. I had learned how to turn while in college and fell in love in the process again once I began. It is so satisfying to see something that is so solid like wood to be carved and manipulated to be a beautiful product.
Where do you seek inspiration for each of your designs?
Nature is a huge inspiration for me. I am always inspired by colors, silhouettes and shapes that are in nature. When I am feeling down creatively, I normally go on hike or visit the park to rejuvenate my mind!
Your use of cork in various ways is particularly striking and unique. What made you fall in love with this material and why do you think it is important?
I am half Portuguese and I used to visit my grandfather in Portugal when I was younger. Cork is a huge part of the Portuguese culture. They make everything out of it and that has always intrigued me! I didn’t even know you could make other things besides wine corks or cork boards out of cork until I visited. It was such an important part of my childhood, that I wanted to be able to use that material in the pieces I make today. It wasn’t until I started working with cork in my products is when I found out all of the amazing natural properties of cork. Its antibacterial, 100% sustainable and naturally porous, making it super versatile to use for different products. I wanted people in America to see that this material was something that was beautiful and could be made into planters, vases and other home good items!
Tell us about your studio space.
My studio space is located in Jack London Square and was an old tomato factory in the early 1900s. It is right off the train tracks in Oakland, so sometimes you can hear the loud horns of the trains rolling by. I have my office, showroom, packing room and wood shop in my space. Im lucky enough to have found my studio 4 years ago instead of it being in my garage, it’s been such a lifesaver especially since woodworking can get pretty dusty!
What does a typical work day look like for you?
I get to the studio around 10:00 am after taking my dog to the park, write out what I need to do for the day, answer back emails. I eat lunch around 1pm, walk my dog and start working in the wood shop around 2pm. I work until 8pm. Depending on what day it is, I would have shipped whatever I made that day, or leave it for the next morning. Get home, make dinner and normally watch a tv show or grab a drink with a friend!
What, in your experience, have been the biggest challenges in starting and sustaining your own business?
Managing my money and time has been the hardest part for me. I went to art school so I don’t have a business background. I have to make sure there’s enough money in the bank for when I have to buy more materials, pay my taxes or my employees. It can be pretty stressful at times, especially when you have to pay for all of things at once. I work all the time to keep up with all the things most businesses have 3-4 people doing. Ive been trying to be better at it by taking small breaks and walking my dog when I want.
What is it like being a maker in America right now?
I think it’s a really important time to be a maker in America right now. We’re bringing in more awareness of design and creating more of a community for designers. Customers enjoy knowing our story and the stories behind our products. They are invested in us and what we make.
What do you love most about your community in the Bay Area?
Everyone is so supportive of each other! We want everyone to succeed in our community.
Top 5 places you need to visit in the Bay Area?